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How the Yankees became the Evil Empire

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How did the Yankees earn the nickname one of science fiction’s most notorious villains?

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

For as long as I can remember, the New York Yankees have been synonymous with the phrase “The Evil Empire,” and for good reason: when using it in daily conversation, you’re just as likely to be referring to the Yankees as to the Galactic Empire from Star Wars. The Pinstripe Alley daily link roundups are called “Around the Empire” after all!

But when did this association begin? What prompted the Yankees’ enemies to begin comparing them to one of the vilest governments in the history of fiction? With it being May the Fourth — Star Wars Day — I decided it high time to dive into the history of the famous moniker.

And so we wind the clock all the way back to...2002? As it turns out, the Evil Empire is merely the latest in a long line of Yankees nicknames, starting with “Murderer’s Row” in reference to the 1918 Yankees (yes, it predates both Ruth and Gehrig in pinstripes) and primarily associated with the ‘27 Yankees and the lineups of the late 1920s. Other nicknames since then referred to this history of power-hitting lineups, such as the Bronx Bombers, or to a particular era, such as The Bronx Zoo.

In December 2002, Boston Red Sox team president Larry Lucchino unwittingly added another title to that collection. Angry at the Yankees for edging out the Red Sox for high-profile free agent pitcher Jose Contreras. New York signed the Cuban defector to a four-year deal with $32 million just a week after inking Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui to a contract. Lucchino responded to a New York Times request for comment first with “a brusque ‘no comment’” before following up with, “The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.

The comments, which originally were published on Christmas Day, had an immediate and lasting impact. Since then, both fans and detractors alike have reveled in the name. But the story does not end there.

Six years later, a company called Evil Enterprises, Inc., applied for a trademark on “Baseball’s Evil Empire,” intending to create Yankees-themed merchandise centered on the phrase and sell them on their website; such a trademark would give them exclusive rights on the slogan. Soon after, the Yankees and Major League Baseball filed an objection to the trademark, arguing that the term, when used in a baseball context, had become so associated with the Yankees that it effectively fell under the Yankees’ pre-existing trademark.

To defend their objection, the Yankees’ lawyers compiled a massive list of articles that referred to the Yankees as the Evil Empire. They also highlighted the fact that the Yankees had embraced their role by playing Star Wars music at home games, which they have done since at least April 25, 2004, the earliest game for which I have been able to find clear video evidence. These strategies worked, as the panel of trademark judges overseeing the case, known as the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board, ruled in favor of the Yankees in February 2013, after a protracted legal battle.

“In short, the record shows that there is only one Evil Empire in baseball and it is the New York Yankees,” the judges’ decision wrote. “Accordingly, we find that [they] have a protectable trademark right in the term...as used in connection with baseball.” Because of this, they ruled that the use of such a term would give the mistaken belief that the merchandise was officially-sanctioned by the Yankees organization, thus effectively granting them a trademark.

The legal victory, however, merely reflects the reality that is the Yankees’ embrace of the Evil Empire as an organization. I personally do not remember what the music that played while the lineups were being introduced was before 2004 — after all, I was only eight years old at the time. But whether or not the Yankees had used Star Wars music beforehand makes no difference: they either adopted the music to adopt the moniker, or continued to use it because they did not object to the comparison (had they objected, they would have changed their music to something else to help downplay the association). Furthermore, in December 2018, Brian Cashman called his front office a “fully-operational Death Star” when preparing for the offseason; such an analogy is no accident.

And so, almost sixteen years after being traded to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Esteban Loaiza, Jose Contreras still has a lasting impact on the Yankees, for the imperial crown he bestowed on his first team still rests squarely upon their brows.